Charting a Development Agenda for Modi’s ‘New India’

Narendra Modi needs to do more than speak about an inclusive India, if his vision to “transform” the country is to be realised.

After winning the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Narendra Modi promised “development for all,” asserting that economic development was the only way forward for India, and would be a conduit to change the country’s destiny. After being re-elected in 2019, the message is similar: Modi, in his first speech after the election results, declared that people voted for development and called for eradicating poverty in the country. Further, he also stated that peoples’ rights entitled them to good governance and development.

Despite this rhetoric, the promised development is yet to materialise. Modi’s flagship policy, the Swachh Bharat Mission has delivered questionable results, unemployment rates have reached a three-decade high, GDP figures have dropped, and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, as well as demonetisation have also negatively impacted the country’s economy. Furthermore, while a greater number of infrastructure projects have been executed under the Modi government, there have been accusations of diluting environmental safeguards to obtain project clearances.

If the existing methods to “develop” the country have failed, then an alternative needs to be created. While  the BJP’s re-election may have cemented the party’s faith in development as an effective political tool, can it lead to the “new India,” which Modi promised? This reading list outlines the issues to be addressed if the Modi government truly wishes for an inclusive form of development.

1) Development Cannot Exclude the Marginalised

Virginius Xaxa cautions that development, as seen during the NDA’s first tenure, has not imbibed their “sabka sath, sabka vikas” slogan which saw the party first come to power in 2014. Xaxa writes that Adivasi tribes are continually displaced at the cost of large-scale infrastructure projects, which often include the acquisition of forestland and common property land. Xaxa argues that these tribes’ resistance to attempts to grab their land is against the state and the corporate world, both of whom are attempting to disregard constitutional and legal safeguards.

It is against the state’s model of development that the tribes are resisting and the state is using all the measures at its disposal, including the monopoly of the use of physical force. What this means is if cooperation is not forthcoming, coercion and violence are the means through which the state’s development agenda is to be pursued. Contrary to the spirit of and the provisions provided for the tribes in the Constitution, the development pursued by the regime is not only contrary to its proclaimed agenda, it also points to the hollowness of the slogan “sabka sath, sabka vikas.”   

2) Development Needs to Include Individual Well-being

The idea of well-being, while imperfect, is still more important than development. Neera Chandhoke argues that the BJP sees development purely in terms of GDP numbers, which results in the exploitation of resources to ensure economic growth. Chandhoke writes that the delinking between development and well–being is most apparent in Gujarat, where makeshift housing colonies lack basic sanitation facilities, and diseases are rampant. 

Will economic growth be accompanied by redistributive justice, or dignity of all individuals, or protection for minorities against marauding mobs? We do not know; the concept of development gives us no indication whatsoever. It is time we shift to a more sophisticated concept that clearly establishes what the government owes citizens—providing the preconditions of a good life, and providing for not only basic needs, but also civil liberties, the right to culture, and the right to live with dignity. 

3) Inequality and Poverty Alleviation Need to be Addressed

While prevailing government schemes to achieve equity may be poorly conceived, A Vaidyanathan dispels the notion that a lack of economic growth and development is due to excessive funds being spent on welfare schemes. Rather than trimming funds available for such schemes, he argues in favour of reducing subsidies on resources such as water and electricity, which state governments often hand out. 

It [reducing subsidies] will contribute to reducing the current bias in the distribution of costs and benefits between classes, and have a hugely beneficial impact in terms of efficient and sustainable use of resources …  Measures to narrow differences in the average duration and quality of education, and affirmative action to enable underprivileged segments acquire higher skills, and access capital to engage in entrepreneurial opportunities are necessary to make a significant and sustained reduction in inequality of income and opportunity.

Alternately, Pradeep Bhargava and V S Vyas write that while economic growth helps reduce poverty, different income groups benefit from this growth in proportion to their income. If poverty alleviation is really to be achieved, Bhargava and Vyas argue in favour of more agriculture–intensive policies which help develop infrastructure and in those that result in more equitable landholdings. 

It is also observed that when there is a significant investment in human development (as reflected in an index of human development) and greater equality in the ownership of assets (as reflected in low concentration ratios) the 'trickle-down' effect of growth becomes more pronounced. In other words, growth is important but growth by itself will not ensure a “spread effect.” The latter will be facilitated to the extent that there is (a) a developed infrastructure and (b) low concentration of assets, i e, the poor also have access to productive assets. Once these two conditions are fulfilled, growth will reach the poor.

4) A Development Agenda Cannot Ignore the Environment

Infrastructure projects are being completed faster, but at what cost? Ramaswamy R Iyer writes that the NDA’s practice of reviewing and repealing “obsolete” laws is a double–edged sword: while structural delays in clearing projects are caused in part due to corruption, project delays due to the lack of required clearances are sometimes necessary—ecological, social and other concerns need to be addressed before projects can be sanctioned. Iyer writes that efficiency should not be realised at the cost of the environment.

If those laws are truly obsolete and stopped being functional a long time ago, they are merely there on the statute books and do not actually come into play. Their repeal will mean nothing in practical terms …  Environmental clearances are often said to be the cause of delays in the clearance of projects. We have a cluster of Acts: Environment Protection Act, Wildlife Protection Act, Biological Diversity Act, Forest Conservation Act, Water Pollution Prevention and Control Act, Panchayati Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA, etc. So long as the Acts exist, a conscientious and literal-minded minister or secretary or other senior official might take them seriously and insist on implementing them stringently. 

Further, Iyer argues that projects can come up, even with stringent environmental laws. Iyer compares environmental clearances between India and  the United States, arguing that despite the US having freer markets, it has strong legislation to regulate private companies when they undertake large projects.

In that country, dams can be built by private agencies but they need a licence; and if the conditions prescribed are not adhered to, the licence can be cancelled. It follows that if we wish to protect and conserve mountains, forests, rivers, wildlife, the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, and indeed our habitat, the Planet Earth, we must have laws and rules and these must be enforced … Describing this kind of examination dismissively as licencepermit raj indicates a mind disabled by ideological prejudice.

Read More:

  1. The Making and Unmaking of 'Development' | Padmini Swaminathan, 2013
  2. How Did Development Come to Stand for Everything Ideal? | EPW Engage, 2018
  3. Development of a few, Misery for the Masses | Anand Teltumbde, 2017

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